Considering her clientele, work associates, and the competition, Rosie needed to make friends with some questionable types, so my story, while intriguing in its scope, did not necessarily rule me out romantically due to any moral qualms she might have about my recent foray into the criminal world. In fact, she was visibly impressed. When I first walked in she had me for a coin collector or philatelist hoping to find a diamond in the rough, which, come to think of it, is exactly what happened.
We spent mornings lounging in her Pioneer Square apartment, a funny little one-room hole, its only entrance through the alley. What it lacked in light it made up for with privacy, and, richly ironic, it resembled a cell which for the time being suited both of us perfectly well.
Max loved her. Not like that. I mean he just thought she was the best thing since beer in cans. Of course, she took our money, making Max immeasurably more pleasant to be around. Taking our money was a no-brainer. However, we had new problems that made money-laundering look like child’s play. A bunch of mailmen bitching over pennies was nothing. The Direct Marketing industry was starting to raise their collective eyebrows, and they weren't to be trifled with.
See, DM’s all about the numbers; crunch the numbers, evaluate the data, test and re-test. For months now marketing campaigns had been showing surprising declines in productivity in the Pacific Northwest. A few agencies and companies noticing this could have been described as anomalous, but as people talked at industry events and wrote about it in the trade rags it became more and more clear that something was up.
There was increasing pressure on the USPS. Mail volumes were declining, the cost of gas was killing their bottom line, and now their biggest clients were starting to make veiled accusations about quality of service. It was only going to get worse.
In the meanwhile, Rosie and I were just taking care of business, personally and professionally.
On the personal side, I had to make the uncomfortable last visit to my wife at my apartment, although by that time I’d ceased to think of either as mine. I packed up what few things I needed, told her she could keep the car, and left.
Before I did, we stood together and talked in the front doorway, one foot out the door. It was awkward, neighbors kept walking by, an incredibly impersonal end to a life together that had started so brilliantly. Now I was saying goodbye to that life in a dark hallway of a moldy apartment another city, another state, and another world apart. It occurred to me then how much more than her I was walking away from, not just her friends and family, also most of mine, and the life that went with them.
It felt surprisingly liberating. I looked at her as I tried not to smile, trying to add gravity to a situation screaming for some. I said something about remember the fun times, how we’d had a pretty good run, sorry, it was all my fault, blah blah blah…and then in a gesture which was exceedingly inappropriate considering our past, stuck out my hand and said, “Take care.”
She shook it and said, “OK, you too.”
I didn’t really believe the moisture in her eyes.
So there I was on the bus back from Green Lake taking stock. I’d considerably lightened my pack since the “good old days” in California; both cars gone, all the stuff, the stuff of a shared life of acquisitions, gifts and inheritances, gone. Trimmed during hard times in San Jose then trimmed more for the trip north, and then trimmed nearly to the bone as I took the essentials back with me to Rosie’s place in Pioneer Square which would become our headquarters, the first nerve center of an increasingly complex organism, growing from that first cell, first zygote into a beast we never in a million years could have imagined.
The seed of the beastliness was right around the corner, that cancer would make itself evident soon, personified in a man who called himself Gianni.
On the professional side, we needed protection. The recycling industry turned out to be very much like the waste management industry, in that it was “organized.” Crime is a funny word. One man’s crime is another man’s salvation. I’m not one to judge, there’s plenty in my life I’m not proud of, but there are elements, you know, types, who achieve a level of brutality, just sheer mean-ness that it calls into question even the most forgiving man’s ability to not say "that’s just fucking sick."
Rosie knew of Gianni, she knew people who knew Gianni. It wasn’t too hard for her to get a meeting, but it was hard for her to make herself believe she was really going to meet with him. Gianni wasn’t really Gianni, he was Jonathon Liebowitz from Burien, a young Jewish kid from the ‘burbs who decided he was going to transform himself into a mob boss. He made the connections, rose through the ranks, did all the dirty work they asked until he didn’t have to do it anymore, unless he wanted to.
It’s one thing to actually be cosa nostra or mafia or whatever the movies have made it all out to be with their codes and violence and twisted sense of honor, but when you’re pretending to be something you’re not, the codes and honor are the first to go. It’s harder to fake those. Ideologues lack adaptability. So, Gianni was brutal without compunction, and his depravity was legend. Rumor had it he’d delivered a fish or two in his day.
The first time Max, Rosie and I met Gianni he was charming, absolutely. He’s one of those guys, well, he saw a bunch of movies and decided he wanted to be one of those guys who has “a table” at their favorite restaurant. Gianni had a table at Luigi’s and when we met him there that first time he was receiving visitors like Seattle’s Doge.
Waitresses fawned, immune to his crassness, the comments, the looks and touches that made my skin crawl, rolled off their backs, the promise of big tips working like an invisible repellant to his repellant-ness.
The owner, Luigi himself, who was really named Gus and ran Italian, Greek and Dutch restaurants with kitchens staffed with nothing but Mexicans, came by to pay obeisance. Gianni was effusive because he knew he didn’t have to be, and, I’m certain, in part, as an act put on for our benefit. Gianni was incomprehensibly obese, as any man that sat at his own table for hours a day demolishing vast quantities of rich, buttery food would be. Yet, somehow, he wore it with a grace that suited him. He was meant to be fat.
Rosie, Max and I sat on our hands smiling nervously while Gianni and Luigi finished their little show. We were there to get help, and while we had some idea of what help we wanted, Gianni was going to tell us different. He’d already heard what we were up to.
He turned to us, finally, smiled his falsely sweet smile and said, “So, it appears you have a problem.”
Max, Rosie and I weren’t quite sure who was going to be the spokesperson. Max was more of a monologist and Rosie, out from behind her cage thus unarmed (though still disarming) was loaded with local knowledge but lacked my facility with language. By process of elimination and in a hurry to end a painfully uncomfortable silence, I spoke up, to my eternal regret, as from that moment on I was the go-to guy, I was on the line. Rosie may have had the guns, contacts and money, but I was the white male at the table, and Gianni was only going to deal with the white male.
I took a deep breath and tried to sound cavalier saying, “One man’s problem is another man’s opportunity.”
“Ain’t that the mother-fucking truth,” Gianni said laughing, “but opportunity doesn’t come cheap.”
Then it was just about terms. The deal worked out like this, Gianni would “work” with union leadership and make sure there was no trouble as far up the chain at the USPS as he could go. The threat of labor unrest or as Gianni not so subtly intimated, outright violence, would be powerful enough that we would be able to continue operating without interruption.
But, and there’s always a “but” Gianni would take 60%. I put out a token plea of 50/50, but (ahem) he just looked at me, as if to say, really, is now the time, do you really think you have room to negotiate?
I turned side to side looking from Rosie to Max hoping for support, nods of affirmation, a smile, anything, but the two of them looked like the cacciatore had caught their tongues.
And so it was.